There are two reads on Owen Pallett, formerly of his alter-ego act Final Fantasy and continued collaborator with Win Butler and Regine Chassigne in Arcade Fire. The first: Pallett is an academic pop genius, a string arranger to the stars, nominated for an Oscar for the Her soundtrack and winner of the Polaris Prize at the age of 26. The other: He is a maudlin and dramatic songwriter, penning musicals for people who hate musicals, an academic Rufus Wainwright, and this last clause isn't a compliment. On second solo record under his own name, In Conflict, Pallett adopts the titular suggestion, dividing himself into halves for the benefit of either himself or his listeners. It is this last itching question, the debated magnanimousness of In Conflict, that grants it equal parts import and exhaustion.
Pallett seems content playing the role of advice columnist or esoteric street philosopher, often taking a didactic tone. On the opening track, “I Am Not Afraid” he claims “the truth doesn't terrify us,” later offering other winsome, packaged aphorisms like “You let yourself believe there is nothing left to lose” and “There's a gap between what a man wants and what a man will receive.” It's deep, sort of. At times it's hard to tell if you're still listening to a pop record or if you've just cracked open your fortune cookie at the end of your meal. It's a yearbook inscription for the literate, self-conscious post-adolescent. “We all need to lose control,” Pallett sings on “The Sky Behind The Flag”, but the lyrics are so anxiously intentional, it's easy to believe him when he tells the press In Conflict deals with his struggles with mental illness. Perhaps his final effort to unify this described gap between “what a man wants and what a man will receive,” Pallett asks, “Does it fill in your gaps like it fills in mine?” on “The Secret Seven”, eventually reading the digits to a phone number that may well be his.
The phone number trick is the idea laid bare; In Conflict centers on this question of connection. Pallett tries out forgiveness as self-actualization, declaring, “I'll never have any children.” He's 35, unafraid to stare down his adulthood without partnership or progeny, trying to avoid what he calls, “spending every year bent over from the weight of the year before.” His friends are paired off now, Pallett describes “meet[ing] your coupled friends with unease.” Instead tacking back toward his childhood on “Song for Five and Six”, Pallett moans, “Even as a child you felt the terror of the infinite.” It isn't quite “death and taxes” pop, but Pallett often finds himself staring down the inexorable, both life's forevers and life's looming cliffs in the same moments. On the woozy “Infernal Fantasy”, he suggests sex as transmuter, the carnal becoming another of life's unavoidable truisms. Pallett sings the bucolic and bizarre line, “Hallucinating as we try to make each other come.” Even the verb choice confesses uncertainty; “try.” The listener falls into a head-spinning universe of anxiety and possible ecstasy, Pallett steering the arrangement to the top of the room with whirring synthesizers and rolling drums: It is his Broadway moment, the closing number of a weird-ass musical, the whole cast on stage singing, “Sun shine over you, over you/ Wait for the sunlight.” For an artist trying so intentionally to connect, even this moment feels distant, not a little performative.
My favorite Owen Pallett moment comes from a 2009 performance of “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” at the Hillside Music Festival in Guelph, Ontario. Halfway through the song, the heavens open and it begins to pour, lightning and thunder off-stage, umbrellas in the crowd. The stage crew hurriedly throw towels over the cords connecting Pallett's many loop pedals. Finally, one of the crew tries to shepherd the artist from the stage—we can only assume his electrocution is imminent. Pallett refuses, saying, “Let me finish the song … just one more minute,” working his violin harder and singing the song's chorus, “I'm never going to give it to you” with a special kind of fervor. Possibly the most rock and roll moment to ever involve a solo violinist, the joke was, Pallett was giving it to us; he couldn't or wouldn't stop. On In Conflict, the artist finds himself strangely restrained and crushingly self-conscious, a noticeable outlier here being the powerful, “The Riverbed”, easily the album's best song, and one that doesn't fear the darkness of booze and depression. Pallett remains at his best when wailing things like, “howling into the breach, let the body fall out of reach,” and later “lay your head, lay your heart next to mine,” giving into the listener and himself in the same moment.
The beauty of the record lies in this same self-referential dialogue, but it is certainly frustrating to watch unfold at times. Pallett is too divided to credibly offer the unity suggested here. If it isn't death, childhood, partnership and sex—maybe it's all these things?—but it certainly isn't as simple or as schismatic as Pallett indicates. Life is both more and less complicated than this.